It wasn't a true bowl game. Not at all. But Mississippi State's 41-27 win in the Egg Bowl over archrival Ole Miss allowed the Rebels to end 2009 with a 5-7 record and tons of momentum in this state where rivalry dominance is supreme.
It also set the stage for 2010, which will be year two in Starkville for coach Dan Mullen.
State now feels that it can win. It feels that it can move the football. It feels that it can excite its crowds and sell tickets in record numbers. It wasn't just the Egg Bowl that did it, but punctuated it.
So the attitude is there. Are the components? State loses its stars from both sides of the ball -- record-setting running back Anthony Dixon and locker room leader Jamar Chaney, a linebacker. But beyond that, most of the critical components of State's team return.
That doesn't mean there aren't questions, and this year's spring will go a long way toward answering them.
State needs a quarterback to step up; that's an evergreen question in Starkville, it seems. Tyler Russell, a highly touted freshman who redshirted last season, will be the subject of all the buzz as he attempts to win a quarterback spot that so many of his fans want to see him dominate.
And then there'll be the battle to replace Anthony Dixon. Robert Elliott, a junior, looks to be the leader, but junior college transfer Vick Ballard is a factor, too.
There are other questions, too: Even with two standout linebackers returning, can State groom a Chaney replacement? Will State shore up its secondary? How will new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz fit?
No matter the answers, the second spring under Mullen seems set to take place with a different attitude than the year prior. And that's all because of the "bowl" game that it won.NOTES, QUOTES
SPRING OBJECTIVES: For Mississippi State, spring 2010 pretty much begins and ends at quarterback. The Bulldogs need to find consistency there after struggling at times -- OK, often -- last season.
All eyes will be on Tyler Russell. He is a freshman from nearby Meridian who, when he signed with State, became one of the most heralded recruits in recent Mississippi State memory. His prep pedigree was outstanding. Some even thought he could start as a true freshman, but he didn't adapt to the system quickly enough. So now, the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman has all the chance in the world -- and says he has a better understanding of the playbook.
But Russell isn't No. 1 on the depth chart. That belongs to Chris Relf. Last year, Relf emerged as a running complement to Tyson Lee, and he was a big reason State won the Egg Bowl. Logic says State could again play two quarterbacks between Relf and Russell, each using their own strengths.
Running back is a huge point of emphasis as well. Robert Elliott now gets his chance to take over the job full time, but junior college transfer Vick Ballard and redshirt freshmen Montrell Conner and LaDarius Perkins will have a say, too.
State will look to sophomores Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox to settle into starting roles at defensive tackle. At strong-side linebacker, converted defensive back Cameron Lawrence is getting a shot. And many of the spots in the secondary are up for grabs as State looks for drastic improvement there from last year.
BUILDING BLOCKS: Even with Anthony Dixon gone and the team's starting quarterback, Tyson Lee, departing, State's offense again figures to be its strongest point. The Bulldogs didn't have much trouble moving the ball last year, and a lot of the playmakers who were big reasons for that -- like wide receiver Chad Bumphis -- return.
An improved offensive line is key. State's front improved in 2009, and there's no reason to think, with much of the same personnel returning, that it can't be even better in 2010.
Defense has some questions, but much of that revolves around its coaches. Manny Diaz came to Mississippi State from Middle Tennessee State to coordinate its defense; Chris Wilson came from Oklahoma to be co-coordinator and coach the defensive line. Replacing Jamar Chaney will be a key, as will shoring up the secondary. But with defensive end Pernell McPhee returning, State should again possess a dangerous pass rush.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This time last year, guys kind of knew -- but didn't know -- what to expect once they got on the field. I think our players now know what to expect when they get on the field." -- Dan Mullen, in The Clarion-Ledger, on his second spring practice as the Mississippi State coach.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: The expectations are nothing short of a bowl berth for this Mississippi State program after it went 5-7 last year. Sure, two of its best players left. But beyond that, it returns at least its first dozen next-best players. State will look to build on the promising start it saw in Dan Mullen's offense in 2009 and will hope that its defense, which suddenly became a liability in 2009, will thrive under a new coordinator.
RB Vick Ballard -- State needs an immediate infusion at running back, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound speedster from junior college might be an answer. Aside from junior Robert Elliott, the remainder of contenders for the starting tailback job will be freshmen. This gives Ballard a leg up.
DT James Carmon -- At 6-foot-7, 345 pounds, Carmon has drawn comparisons to Alabama's former hole-plugging defensive tackle, Terrence Cody. Carmon could emerge as the same type of player for State.
QB Dylan Favre -- Don't sell this guy short, not with that last name. Though much of the hype in the spring centers around Tyler Russell and Chris Relf at quarterback, look out in the fall when Favre, who rewrote the Mississippi record books, gets a chance. (As for that last name, he is Brett Favre's nephew.)
--Cameron Lawrence (6-2, 225) has been moved from defensive back to linebacker in order to get more depth at that position. Chris White moved from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker to accommodate the move.
--There were few, if any, holdover injuries from 2009. Reserve center D.J. Looney had knee surgery and won't practice until the fall. Safety Zach Smith, who had debated giving up football after recurring concussions, was back on the practice field with the spring started.
Previous Report: 04/09/2010